With everything going on lately surrounding COVID-19, you might be wondering if there are certain factors that make you more susceptible to getting really sick from the virus. It turns out, new research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates there are. Read on as Dr. Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, FACSM, lifestyle medicine expert and chair of Jenny Craig’s Science Advisory Board, shares important risk factor data as well as practical advice you can use to stay healthy.
What the new research says
According to the CDC, individuals with at least one underlying health condition may be at an increased risk of experiencing complications from the virus.1 Specifically, the organization cites chronic lung disease, heart conditions including high blood pressure, severe obesity (BMI of 40 or higher), diabetes and liver disease.2 While the research is preliminary and only available for nearly 6% of total cases, the findings are consistent with other countries.
“This new research supports how important it is — especially now — to prioritize your health and well-being,” Dr. Peeke states. “Now is the time to adopt healthy lifestyle habits like good nutrition, sleep and exercise — all of which can have a significant impact on your health and well-being in the long-term.”
4 COVID-19 risk factors & practical ways to optimize your health
While you cannot change some disease-related risk factors, like your age, you do have the power to improve your lifestyle habits. By improving your lifestyle habits, you can positively impact these four COVID-19 risk factors. Read on for more on these risk factors and for Dr. Peeke’s guidance on everyday steps you can take to help improve your health.
1. Being overweight or obese
According to the National Institutes of Health, having a body mass index (BMI) of over 25 is considered overweight, while having a B MI of 30 or greater is considered obese. (Click here to find out your BMI.) Being overweight or obese can increase your odds of health complications, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and heart disease.3
Dr. Peeke explains, “Obesity is related to chronic inflammation throughout your body and is associated with a myriad of diseases which can increase your likelihood of contracting COVID-19 and experiencing complications. Preliminary research on the virus indicates that obesity was the single biggest factor in hospitalizations in New York City.”4 She continues, “By improving your eating habits and focusing on sustainable weight management, you can decrease your viral risk, and improve your health. In fact, losing just 5% to 10% of your weight has been shown to provide substantial health benefits and a reduction in many different obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.”
Dr. Peeke Recommends: Start by taking a look at your diet and ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you eating enough fruits and vegetables (5-9 servings a day)? Here’s how to incorporate veggies into any meal.
- Are you getting lean protein throughout the day? Here’s how to include protein at every meal.
- Are you monitoring your portion sizes? (Check out this handy visual guide.)
Take a look at what you’re eating now and see how you can improve it, even slightly. If you’re unsure where to start, or don’t want to go to the grocery store, Jenny Craig offers a variety of healthy, convenient meal plans that can be delivered to your doorstep.
2. Heart conditions
If you have a heart-related condition, you’re not alone. The American Heart Association reports nearly half of Americans have some sort of cardiovascular disease.5 It’s important to note that obesity is an independent risk factor for heart disease, adversely impacting both heart structure and function.
“New research has described serious cardiovascular complications occurring in 10% to 20% of patients hospitalized with this virus,” Dr. Peeke explains.6 “Hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, Type 2 diabetes and elevated levels of inflammation all contribute to coronary heart disease.”
Dr. Peeke Recommends: If you have any form of cardiovascular disease and are looking to improve your heart health, try taking these steps:
- Aim to get more active by committing to at least 30 minutes of daily moderate aerobic activity, and increase your daily activities including gardening, housecleaning and dancing, too!7 (Try one of these 9 simple exercises anyone can do at home.) And as always, talk to your healthcare provider before starting any exercise routine.
- Concentrate on being more heart-healthy by adding plenty of leafy green vegetables, berries, beans and healthy fats (like avocado and olive oil) to your diet. Check out these 10 foods to help boost heart health.
- If you are obese or overweight, reducing your BMI by just one unit (about 5% to 10% reduction in your weight) could significantly decrease your risk of heart complications.
- Reduce your sodium intake. Limit your consumption to 2300 milligrams a day.8
Did you know? Jenny Craig includes a variety of heart-healthy ingredients in portion-friendly meals.
The American Diabetes Association states that individuals with diabetes are at greater risk of experiencing severe symptoms when sick.9 Additionally, new research from the CDC indicates that people with Type 2 diabetes may be at higher risk of COVID-19 complications.
“A healthy diet is critical in managing diabetes,” Peeke emphasizes. “Eating a balanced, reduced-carb diet that includes plenty of non-starchy vegetables, as well as high-quality fats, has been shown to have a positive effect on A1C levels.”
Dr. Peeke Recommends: Since diabetes is a chronic metabolic condition that causes high blood sugar levels, try to:
- Eat more non-starchy vegetables, and become aware of the differences between starchy and non-starchy vegetables (hint: they’re both good for you, but you’ll want to focus on including more non-starchy veggies into your diet).
- Reduce your intake of refined and processed foods, opting for natural, whole foods.
- Avoid late dinners and post-dinner snacks, where it’s easy to mindlessly consume sugar-laden foods which can contribute to weight gain.
As for refined foods, try to avoid them. Foods such as white bread, pastries, candy and the like are typically packed with sugar and lack essential vitamins and fiber. Instead, reach for whole-grain bread and whole foods such as fruit, beans and vegetables.
Need help managing Type 2 diabetes? Jenny Craig’s Type 2 diabetic program has been shown in clinical research to help manage diabetes — with 72% of participants able to reduce or stop their use of insulin.10
4. Smoking and e-cigarettes
The World Health Organization reports that smokers may be more vulnerable to catching viruses because of hand-to-mouth contact.11 Additionally, the organization notes that smokers may already have reduced lung capacity, which can increase the risk of serious complications from COVID-19.
“When we look at upper respiratory viruses in general, smokers tend to fare worse than non-smokers,” Peeke states. “Research has shown that smoking and e-cigarette use can increase lung inflammation and damage, as well as suppress immune function.”
Dr. Peeke Recommends: Because the negative health consequences of smoking and e-cigarette use are so profound, try to kick the smoking habit by:
- Reaching out to your primary care provider to take advantage of the many smoking-cessation options now available, including nicotine replacement therapies (patches, gum, lozenges).
- Downloading an app to track cravings, identify and manage triggers, cope with stress and monitor progress.
- Getting your smoking cessation questions answered at smokefree.gov or the CDC’s website.
These are challenging times for everyone. It’s now more important than ever to prioritize self-care to reduce your risk of COVID-19. Hopefully these recommendations can help you make positive lifestyle changes and optimize your health and well-being. If you’re ready to start your journey to better health, Jenny Craig can help. Get started with nutritious, balanced meals delivered to your doorstep today.
 Diabetes Care 2014;37:1573-80. Doi:10.2337/dc13-2900
Elisa is a content marketing manager for Jenny Craig with over ten years of experience working in the health and fitness industry. She loves sharing her passion for living a balanced and healthy lifestyle. A San Diego native and an endurance sports enthusiast, you can usually find her swimming, biking along the coast highway or running by the beach in her free time. Elisa holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University, Chico.
Dr. Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
Dr. Peeke is chairman of the Jenny Craig Science Advisory Board, Pew Foundation Scholar in Nutrition and Metabolism, Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine, and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. She is an internationally recognized expert, physician, scientist and New York Times best-selling author in the fields of public health, nutrition, fitness and weight management.
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